It’s day two of the ‘Informal’ Asia Europe Foundation meeting on human rights and ICTs, and we’re split up into workshops to discuss recommendations that will go to the Foundation’s ministerial meeting in November: I’m in the workshop on digital divide.

While a lot of interesting ideas came up during the course of the day – in particular the concept of universal design, that technologies need to incorporate enough flexibility and openness to allow them to be modified to suit the needs of all users – the one which causes me most concern is the problem of knowledge that is being locked away, often without reason.

One of the participants from Japan shared a story of recovery from the tsunami. One publisher decided, as part of its contribution to the effort to rebuild, it would make its materials available free of charge. According to the participant, this made a huge difference. Knowledge can help in very material ways.

But there was, of course, no obligation. There was no reason for them to share. And it’s problematic. The day raised a few examples of why. One was an NGO in Korea which pays a huge sum of money for access to legal case files – but it is then unable to share this access with all its members. The total bill if it abided by the company restrictions would end up in the hundreds of thousands of dollars – far too much for a relatively small NGO network.

Let’s unpack this a little. Case files are public documents. They aren’t official secrets, they don’t require creative, intellectual or even new work to compile them. They just require compilation. It’s quite possible that this compilation would never get down – especially on an international level – without economic incentive. But for the cost of compilation to run to the hundreds of thousands of dollars for just one network strikes me at being very unbalanced – especially when the material is public in the first place!

This is particularly bizarre given the justification for copyright in the first place. Perhaps due to the advent of the printing press, making it easier to steal ideas, it was recognised (in Sweden to begin with), that some protection was needed for artists and creators to ensure that they could earn a living and be encouraged to be creative. Early debates on copyright at the turn of the last century seemed to portray copyright as a necessary evil, one that should be as curtailed as possible. Copyright, and patents, were once about balance – balancing the public interest of encouraging creativity with the public interest of access to creative works and intellectual endeavours (including medicines, mechanical inventions and the like).

Now, however, public interest seems to have fallen away. Another example also illustrates this – copyright on academic work. Most academic works are produced inside public institutions. This means that the work that is being done is being paid for by public money – by taxes. They are generally published – and there is great pressure on academics to publish – by private institutions. These institutions do not pay for the works. They do not pay the people who review the works. And once the work is digitised, they pay very little to distribute the work. And yet, if you want to access these materials, the charges (even to the institutions where the academics work!) can be astronomical. Copyright is not encouraging creativity or intellectual endeavour. By creating private property on goods that were paid for publicly (through paying the academics for their time), all copyright is doing here is creating artificial property rights, artificial restrictions on information.

The problem is particularly hard for academics in developing countries. Where academics in rich institutions can afford practically unlimited access to journals and data, poorer institutions are disadvantaged – which means that their thinkers, their academics and their students are also disadvantaged.

It’s not the digital divide of fibre optics, but without a more humane and practical copyright regime, limited access to knowledge is going to perpetuate digital and knowledge divides between rich and poor institutions, between nations and between individuals, making overcoming all other aspects of the digital divide more difficult.

And the reason that I find this particular problem so compelling is because it is so easy to overcome. It doesn’t require the huge investments in technology, infrastructure or even education that some of the other initiatives we discussed that day required. It doesn’t even require progress – it requires regressing. We need to move back, we need to move the debate back to where copyright is limited by how far it serves a public function. Because right now, we’ve moved far too far in the other direction.

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